Clairo Settles Into Piano Ballad Territory On Her Ambitious, Quiet New Album, ‘Sling’

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The scrutiny that young women — hell, all women – face within the music industry is well-documented. With “Blouse,” the sole single released from her sophomore album, Sling, Clairo adds her own grievances to that lengthy petition. Movements like #MeToo and an increased emphasis on diversity and equality have reflected a more public longing for a cultural shift, but not much has budged. Perhaps it’s young women who are the most shocked by how little the status quo of sexism and misogyny seems to change, despite lip service to the contrary. Older generations have grown weary, or wiser, in the fight. Or, simply absconded away from the unsafe offices of leering executives, opting to pursue a different kind of life. On Sling, Clairo is weary and absconding — both suit her incredibly well.

At 22, Claire Cottrill is still young, two years younger than her frequently-cited peer and now collaborator, Lorde, though the two women share the unsettling-but-coveted experience of teenage stardom. “What this industry does a lot is drain young women of everything until they’re not youthful any more,” Cottrill remarked to The Guardian in one of her few interviews in support of her second album as Clairo. She prefaces that thought with the implied premise: “‘There’s a lot more that we can squeeze out of her before she’s done.’” Within that context, it’s not surprising that a famous teen — crowned the next big indie star, then immediately torn down for her father’s corporate connections — would eventually fantasize about a life of rural domesticity. Committing to care for herself and others is a way of reclaiming a connection to the joy of youth, a respite from the calculating prurience of record labels. Isn’t the mother the dichotomous opposite of the whore?

For Sling, the would-be pop star has turned to the piano palette of Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, and Carole King, as a late 2020 King/Browne cover hinted, employing honeyed ‘70s melancholia to chronicle her own shift from glum dorm-room phenom to the splendid isolation of a listless twenty-something. Except Clairo found meaningful companionship in the meantime, not just in best friends and sometimes bandmates of Claud and Josh Mehling, but in caring for an adopted rescue dog, Joanie. Even the album artwork centers this caretaker relationship, with Claire gazing down, a latent paw indicating Joanie’s presence. Over what could be a Billy Joel piano riff, Cottrill harmonizes with herself on her dog’s namesake tune, foregoing lyrics for the sake of the melody’s own storytelling. It’s a playful, off-the-wall kind of track, and an indication of just how different this record is from her stark, shimmering 2019 debut, Immunity. (Rostam wouldn’t have let this fly, but Antonoff loves a scribble — the emotional resonance the song shares with Chemtrails is striking.)

After a year spent in lockdown with her family, Cottrill understandably made changes to the architecture of her personal life, committing to care for Joanie, and opting to split time between a Brooklyn apartment and renovating her newly-purchased house on a five-acre plot in a tiny Massachusetts town. That house, along with the remote mountaintop location of Allaire Studios in upstate New York where the album was recorded under Antonoff’s wing, seems to animate the atmosphere of Sling as much as any lived experiences. In interviews, Clairo talks of encountering her mother’s memories of life prior to the roles of wife and mom, an experience that thrust this era of her own life into stark relief: Is pre-motherhood Claire simply a chapter her own daughter will forget to imagine for a few decades? The gentle, Lorde-featuring “Reaper” gets into this thought pattern with even more depth: “I keep forgetting that I’ll have a family,” and “I’m born to be somebody, then somebody comes from me.” This, too, is armor against the youth-draining objectification her time spent on stage hammered home.

Even the album’s name isn’t taken from the more familiar slingshot, but the cloth wrap that a parent uses to nestle a newborn, a subtle shift that recasts the tone of the songwriting. “I could wake up with a baby in a sling,” she sings on the uneven “Zinnias,” painting the picture further: “Just a couple doors down from Abigail / My sister, man and her ring.” It’s not a far-off dream, but one that resonates because of its simplicity, and the perceived distance from rooms where stories like the one told on “Blouse” take place. In that way, Sling is a document of the distance between what Clairo’s life has been, and what she’d like it to be. Sans any features, aside from backing vocals from Lorde on two songs, the record is a singular document in our current collaborative environment. If there’s one area where Clairo doesn’t need any help, it’s in knowing what to say. Her strength has been and continues to be translating the ennuis of her generation into songs that make sense to people of all ages. These songs are piano ballads, but they’re also quietly ambitious, a memento of her life as it is now — more than enough, until another chapter unfolds.

Sling is out now via Fader Label/Republic Records. Get it here.